Sea changer unprepared for NSW South Coast bushfires blames ‘blind ignorance’


When Greg Paterson left Sydney for the coastal village of Durras North, he was ready for a sea change — he was not so ready for bushfire season.

Mr Paterson and his wife, Tracy, left the suburb of St George in 2004 and relocated to the New South Wales South Coast.

They chose the area because Mr Paterson had been visiting to go trail bike riding since the late 1970s.

“It’s been a wonderful experience so far,” he said.

Mr Paterson left behind a career in the printing industry and looked for something local.

He ended up as the town postman, which he said “suited me” because of the environment.

“We are surrounded by forest, and the ocean is great, but I think the forests that go down to the oceans are a cut above just being at the beach,” he said.

A beautiful beach with a forest on the shoreline
Depot Beach is in Durras North on the bushfire-ravaged New South Wales South Coast.(ABC Illawarra: Sarah Moss)

Bushfires change landscape

But the environment Mr Paterson moved to has changed significantly.

A parrot eats from a man's hand.
Greg Paterson has no regrets about moving from Sydney to Durras North.(Supplied: Tracey Paterson)

“You drive through this magnificent forest, albeit they are very burnt now,” Mr Paterson said.

The bushfires that swept across the South Coast in December 2019 were intense, killing mature plants, potentially destroying seed reserves and opening the landscape up for invasive weeds.

“You’ve got these burnt, charred trees sitting there, but all up and down the tree trunk you have spurts of new growth,” Mr Paterson said.

Living through the bushfires did not make Mr Paterson regret the sea change, but it did make him more determined to stay.

“We aren’t going to let that stop us enjoying the way of life down here and the environment we live in,” he said.

The forest rejuvenates up and down Mt Agony Road
The trunks of burnt trees are sprouting after summer bushfires on the NSW South Coast.(ABC Illawarra: Sarah Moss)

A learning experience

Mr Paterson said that during the bushfires, which surrounded his property on three sides, he felt afraid and was struck by his own lack of knowledge.

“I put it down to blind ignorance, but it was a learning experience on all levels,” he said.

“When the fires were around us, from the north then to the west, and weeks later it shifted to the south, every hour that went by was a learning experience.

“If you haven’t been a part of that, if you’ve come from a city sea change situation, bushfires are something new.

A strip of the road shows clearly the rejuvenating trees.
Forest along Mount Agony Road is regrowing after bushfires.(ABC Illawarra: Sarah Moss)

District manager for the Shoalhaven Rural Fire Service Mark Williams agreed with Mr Paterson.

“As much as we can educate people and tell them how horrific some of these situations are should they choose to stay and defend their homes in a bushfire, nothing will prepare you for the absolute outcome,” he said.

“You have to go through it yourself.”

Research is key

Superintendent Williams also urged potential sea changers to research destinations.

“Have a look at the surrounds, talk to the locals, talk to your local council, and importantly talk to your local rural fire service brigade,” he said.

A bush fire engulfs Durras North headland
Fires on the Durras North headland in December, 2019.(Facebook: Josh Burkinshaw)

Superintendent Williams said research could also help sea changers meet prospective new neighbours.

“Breaking the ice with locals may be just the push you need to sign up to your local fire brigade as a volunteer,” he said.

“It’s the local community members who are the members of the RFS going out and protecting their own community.”

He also suggested assessing blocks of land or properties to see how prepared they were for fires.

“Undertaking preparation works for those properties is vital,” he said.

“Have a bushfire survival plan, prepare your property, clean gutters, remove combustible material and keep grass short.

“There is a multitude of things people can do to give their property and ultimately themselves, the protection that they need.”

The forest at Durras North extends down to the shoreline
Spotted gums line Depot Beach at Durras North.(ABC Illawarra: Sarah Moss)



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